Now the moon lies herself out on top of the water / She’s as naked as we were born

This is quite surreal.

Thir­ty or so kilo­me­tres north of here whole sub­urbs are under­wa­ter, as are uni­ver­si­ties and indus­tri­al estates full of all sorts of plants includ­ing some of the most high-tech dig­i­tal man­u­fac­tur­ers on the plan­et. And yet none of that tech­nol­o­gy and know-how has pre­vent­ed bil­lions of litres of water strip­ping the lives away from at least 3 mil­lion peo­ple and destroy­ing some 600,000 homes in the provinces above and to the side of the gigan­tic urban sprawl that is Bangkok.

Fur­ther south, in the still dry inner city (a huge area itself, some 1500 square kilo­me­tres) its 9 mil­lion inhab­i­tants (the met­ro­pol­i­tan area is 15 mil­lion — not all that is flood­ed by any means, with esti­mates rang­ing from 5 to 15% awash as of today) wait to see if or when the boom is going to drop.

I’ve not lived in a city under siege before.

That said, in the past five years we’ve been through sev­er­al earth­quakes, a vol­cano erupt­ing, a typhoon, two ter­ror­ist bomb­ings, a city aflame with open urban war­fare and now a cat­a­clysmic flood.

How many lives do I have left?

Of course, in this case, I have no real right to even think such things. I’m priv­i­leged. Hun­dreds of thou­sands are home­less, out of a job — at least tem­porar­i­ly — or have lost family.

And there are, per­haps, hun­dreds of farmed crocs loose in the waters just to add to the mis­ery and threat. Nobody real­ly knows how many. One is too many.

And then there are snakes.

In the dry bits of Bangkok (so far — as I write the heav­ens have just explod­ed with thun­der and light­ning and tor­rents are now com­ing down) the unre­al­ness of this all is quite faz­ing. But at least we are dry, or as dry as we often are.

Try­ing to get my head around at least a small part of this, I went for a cou­ple of extend­ed walks around the cen­tral city ear­li­er in the week — around the malls, down to the riv­er, and — mis­tak­en­ly — through the sleaze pit area around Soi Nana, a place I’ve, to now, com­plete­ly avoid­ed in the years I’ve been here.

I wish I had­n’t gone — to Nana that is — as the hor­ri­ble old men with their new­ly acquired 118-year-old’­girl­friends’ were express­ing their mutu­al­ly advan­ta­geous but dispir­it attrac­tions — true love — every­where, obliv­i­ous I guess to any­thing beyond the com­ing moments.

I imag­ine when you’ve reached a place where you see noth­ing wrong with tak­ing some young coun­try girl a quar­ter or more your age, doing it pri­mar­i­ly for the bucks, back to meet your kids as their new ‘moth­er’, then your world is pret­ty odd any­way. It makes me barf.


Down by the Sathorn Cen­tral pier which I’ve used count­less times, the riv­er was high — so high it com­plete­ly cov­ered the nor­mal­ly exposed bridge sup­ports and was notice­ably vicious. Only the tourists were fool­ish­ly wait­ing for the clear­ly almost impos­si­ble to manoeu­vre cross-riv­er fer­ries which seemed to be trust­ing prayers and luck to make it across.

There was water on the foot­path and sand­bags. It had recent­ly flooded.

At the intere­sec­tion of Ratchapra­song and Rama 1 — which only 15 months ear­li­er had seen pitched bat­tles and depart­ment stores aflame — lux­u­ry goods stores already had sand­bags, and work­ers build­ing these high­er as I watched.

The prox­im­i­ty of the cru­cial San Saep Canal, which feeds direct­ly into the Chao Praya (and rather unfor­tu­nate­ly flows some 500 metres from our front door too), was obvi­ous­ly some­thing that weighed, as was the recent recov­ery and re-open­ings from the dam­age of 2010.

Across the canal, out­side the twin mul­ti-sto­ry fash­ion Plat­inum fash­ion malls and the IT floors of Plan­tip Plaza it seemed as tourist busy as ever. There were hus­tlers, taxis, tuk-tuks and shop­pers every­where, step­ping over and mak­ing some use of the omni-present sandbags.

Miss Canon Cam­era — on stage as part of the Dig­i­tal Cam­era Expo 2011 — chose me to sing a song to — try­ing to insist I join her on her plas­tic be-flow­ered podi­um behind the table with the white plas­tic bun­ny on it.

I demurred and stepped out­side again, ignor­ing her fad­ing pleas…

I watched a clas­sic Krung Thep scam tak­ing place.

I tried to warn her from a dis­tance — with loud hand ges­tures — but she was dis­in­ter­est­ed in what must have looked like some bizarre farang wav­ing very odd­ly. Instead, she opt­ed to take the advice being giv­en by the well dressed man — sketch­ing direc­tions on her map as is the way — and was last seen head­ing off into Pratunum’s mazed alleys in a tuk-tuk.



I briefly won­dered what that would cost her but let it go — I tried, and it hap­pens dai­ly after all, water or no water.

Back over the bridge, out­side Cen­tral World and Ise­tan it was even more sur­re­al. I wan­dered unpre­pared into thou­sands of well-heeled Bangkokians cel­e­brat­ing what was being called the Bangkok Fun Fest — joy­ous­ly host­ed by a radio station.

There were celebri­ties every­where — being chased by cam­era crews and auto­graph hunters — and a female singer who, if the screams pro­vid­ed a rough indi­ca­tor, was a huge pop star.

Every time she spoke between songs her voice was drowned in the wails, and kids looked suit­ably dis­traught as she flashed across the big screens.

Twen­ty or so kilo­me­tres north of the Bangkok Fun Fest, peo­ple — fam­i­lies and chil­dren includ­ed — were scram­bling to save their worlds and their lives. Nowhere in the Cen­tral World fes­tiv­i­ties did I see a col­lec­tion or dona­tion facility.

Maybe I missed it. I hope so.

Nor did I see any indi­ca­tion or aware­ness of irony as the rich kids of the city took pho­tos of each oth­er on their iPads and Tabs and con­sumed the many flavours of gela­to and boun­ti­ful design­er foods on offer. 1

A cou­ple of days lat­er we were tak­ing off on our long sched­uled few days to Hanoi.

Fly­ing north east out of Suvarmab­hu­mi you see the vast blue spread of water blan­ket­ing almost end­less­ly the bor­der­ing provinces, with towns, cities, com­merce, uni­ver­si­ties & schools, their mas­sive indus­tri­al parks (wan­na buy a new Toy­ota in the USA — you may have to wait) and rice crops (these floods have knocked just under 10% of this year’s annu­al glob­al rice trade for six, trash­ing 1.6 mil­lion hectares of fer­tile pro­duc­tive land).

All the satel­lite imagery, Google and Nos­tra maps in the world can’t pre­pare you for this.

It went on for at least 15 min­utes more or less like this. There are peo­ple down there.….

Sev­en days lat­er, the city has sobered notice­ably. The traf­fic is sparse, the foot­paths emp­ty and many small­er busi­ness­es are secure­ly board­ed up. The rich kids have like­ly fled, leav­ing the city in droves with their par­ents — down to the hol­i­day home in Hua Hin or Pat­taya; the cor­po­rates and the embassies have also jumped ship as the waters sup­pos­ed­ly rush in.

Except they haven’t. Yet.

And the word increas­ing­ly and cau­tious­ly out there is that much of Bangkok may have dodged the bul­let — at least the parts beyond the sod­den fringes. And even there the parts under­wa­ter are less than uni­ver­sal. This is a town, as vast and sprawl­ing as it is 2, where 30cm of water in a street — what would con­sid­ered a flood most else­where — is a week­ly event in many parts dur­ing the wet season.

Jump­ing ship ‑espe­cial­ly for those whom such flood­ing is lit­tle more than an incon­ve­nience (and lets face it, liv­ing on the third floor of a con­do or high­er it’s going to be lit­tle more than that unless you have kids and/or elder­ly to think of) — and leav­ing those who sim­ply can’t leave to face the worst of it some­how seems wrong.

Brigid and I, in Hanoi yes­ter­day, talked the pros and cons over before decid­ing on our return today. It is home after all.

Some­how it seemed like the right thing to do.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Which may be a lit­tle unfair as many peo­ple have been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly active and gen­er­ous with both their time and their mon­ey.
  2. I was bought up with the myth that Auck­land was the world’s biggest city in land area — none­sense: count­less urban behe­moths dwarf it. Bangkok alone is almost twice the size of my home­town, and that’s just the extend­ed city, not the greater urban region.

1 Comment

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William Ked­dell on Facebook
October 31, 2011 at 1:33 am

Stay dry!

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